16 January 2013

Book Review: 'Fobbit'

'Fobbit' by David Abrams

David Abrams has written a reasonable chronicle of his time as a public affairs soldier in 2005 Iraq, a novel that reads like a scrapbook full of daily indignities and deployment realities. Like all good war stories, some of it might even be true: Hording care packages. Messing around in chemical toilets. Avoiding work and danger and steely gazes at the local Post Exchange. All the while, the rockets-red glare of memoranda exploding overhead, regarding such reality-distorting topics as whether or not bad guys should be officially labelled "insurgents" or "terrorists."

No doubt, if you've deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, you've heard and seen this all before. It took Abrams, however, to pack 10 pounds of it into the proverbial 5-pound bag.

This is labelled as a work of fiction, but Abrams obviously has recycled much of his real-world experiences into his work. The names, no doubt, had to be changed to protect the innocent and the incompetent. Sometimes, you have to burn the truth in order to tell it.

The book takes both title and setting after the American practice of salting foreign soil with Forward Operating Bases ("FOB"). Fobbits are akin to the halflings found in J.R.R. Tolkein's tales, who would much rather surround themselves in the comforts of home, than to seek out glory or adventure. Where hobbits live in holes that feature circular doors, however, Fobbits live in dark, air-conditioned shipping containers and office cubes. They hide away in headquarters buildings, far away from combat, surrounded by e-mail and espresso machines.

Veterans of earlier conflicts might use other pejoratives: "REMF," which stands for "Rear Echelon Mother-F'er," is probably the closest analogue. Wars no longer have front lines and rear echelons, course. Instead, we dot the landscapes of other peoples' countries with the tactical equivalents of military suburbs and gated communities.

"We has met the Fobbit, and he is us."

The narrative weaves together the stories of a handful of do-nothing officers, soldiers, policies, and memoranda. Each chapter brings fresh perspective on the problems festering at FOB Triumph. There is a hardworking staff sergeant, for example, worn down by the grind of rewriting and revising news releases past the point of timeliness and relevance. A ne'er-do-right company commander, who finds himself reassigned to morale-support activities after one too many mishaps in the field. A Sad Sack public affairs officer (P.A.O.), prone to nosebleeds, whose one moment of greatness is more an act of cover-up than covering the Army story.

The pace is deliberate, and builds slowly toward its conclusion. It feels, in short, a bit like a deployment itself: Partly flabby and cloudy, with a chance of Groundhog Day.

It is not a perfect work, but it's close enough for government work. Among a few downsides: There are few competent or sympathetic characters in Abrams' universe, and only one of these is an officer. In 'Fobbit,' the NCO is not only the backbone of the Army, he is the center of it.

Also, there are occasional terminological tripwires that might distract readers familiar with military lingo or protocol. One example: A character refers to another's "Classified clearance." This is an incorrect term. A soldier might say "security clearance," or "Secret clearance." Instead, the line lands like a dud.

The overarching themes, on the other hand, land with great effect.

If anything, Abrams might have pushed the envelope a little further. By aiming center-mass and being so matter-of-fact, he runs the risk that some readers might come to regard his words as straight reportage, rather than as satire. By the end, however, he hits his targets—lobbing mortar shells of absurdity into his narrative—and achieves a certain level of laugh-out-loud hilarity. One merely wishes that he would have delivered more such gut-clenching guffaws, along with the chuckles of recognition he already supplies in abundance.

Bottom line: Abrams may not have fully captured the insanity of war, but he has done an admirable job of capturing the inanity of it. This should be required reading for every self-respecting (-loathing?) TOC-rat, Fobbit, and headquarters soldier. And those who love them.

Disclosure: The Red Bull Rising blog received a review copy of this book.

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